Is it time to retire the cork?
Overheating, for instance, can "cook" a wine in an hour or less, whether it's exposed to extreme heat on a kitchen-cabinet wine rack, in your car parked on a hot summer day, baked in a careless retailer's premises or overheated on a ship, truck or loading dock in transit from the winery through trade channels to you.
And that's not all. Exposure to air through a cracked, loose or defective cork can turn a good wine into a fair replica of cheap Sherry through oxidation. Bacterial and fungal contaminations may convert that pure fruit taste into something nasty; and the same goes for unpleasant sulfur-related or vinegar flavors.
Happily, the arrival of technology in the winery has alleviated or even eliminated many common wine flaws. But one persistent problem remains: As long as consumers continue to demand that quality wines be stoppered with natural cork - a 17th century technology for 21st century wine - we must accept that a small but significant percentage of the wines we open will be afflicted with an unpleasant fault that seems to be inseparable from natural cork.
We've taken on this topic here a couple of times before, but many of you E-mailed me after our recent column on synthetic corks, asking that I run through it again.
The chemistry is simple enough: A significant amount of natural cork contains a fungus that, upon exposure to wine in the bottle, creates a chemical called 2,4,6-tricloroanisole (TCA for short). This compound carries a characteristic dank, moldy aroma that reminds most people of mushrooms, damp cardboard or a wet basement, so persistent and strong that for all practical purposes it ruins the wine. (Even in very small proportions, moreover, TCA at levels below the threshold of perception may still render a wine flat, dull and muted.)
Wine so afflicted is said to be "corked" or "tainted," and many wine lovers believe that the problem could be virtually eliminated by replacing natural corks in wine bottles with a synthetic closure or screw cap.
But cork is so strongly associated with quality wine in most consumers' minds that the wine industry has been reluctant to consider shifting to cleaner alternatives like synthetic corks or even high-quality metal screw caps. The alternatives - using high-quality cork and inspecting them carefully - are expensive and still subject to failure, since the fungus that causes TCA cannot be reliably detected in advance.
In the past, we have used our Wine Lovers' Voting Booth feature to sample whether wine lovers would accept alternative closures for fine wines. This week we're taking a slightly different direction, inviting wine enthusiasts around the world to estimate for us how many of the wines you taste you consider to be "corked." We would like to gather as large a sample as possible, so I urge you to take a moment to click to the Voting Booth, http://www.wineloverspage.com/votebooth, and let us know.
If you would like to talk about this subject, the link http://www.wineloverspage.com/cgi-bin/sb/index.cgi?fn=1&tid=16747 will take you to an ongoing discussion about cork "taint" in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group. Or send me E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll save them for use in a future report. I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note. But I'll answer as many as I can; and please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine.
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A very fine Cotes du Rhone
"Cotes du Rhone" serves as a general designation for all the wines made in a broad area along the slopes or hillsides ("Cotes," in French) of the Rhone Valley, and it covers a broad range of wines of wildly varying quality and price. I usually feature relatively inexpensive Cotes du Rhones, a category that I consider one of the world's most reliable for quality and value. But here's one from the other end of the spectrum, a special bottling from the respected J.L. Chave, best known for his pricey Syrah-based Hermitage. Very dark ruby in color, it offers a complex and interesting aroma of grilled meat and smoke and minerals over deep and brooding black fruit. Full and structured fruit flavors offer earthy and smoky nuances that follow the nose. Although it's expensive for a Cotes-du-Rhone, it's a stylish and complex table wine, drinking well now but promising still more improvement with cellar time. U.S. importer: The Wine Library Inc., Petaluma, Calif. (May 18, 2001)
FOOD MATCH: A natural match with grilled red meats; I served it with a simple dinner of lamb with orzo pasta.
California Wine Club
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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.
Vol. 3, No. 19, May 28, 2001